Andrzej (pronounced ahn-zjay) was not movie star handsome.  He would be the first to admit that in the wry, self deprecating way he always talked. But if you looked behind his glasses into his bright, shining eyes, you saw a burning curiosity about life that refused to be quenched.

He was fascinated by all things military. When we first met, he bombarded me with questions about aircraft I had flown and in return, described in minute detail every aircraft, helicopter, tank and artillery piece in the Polish Armed Forces — all in halting, but precise technical English. He was literally a walking edition of the Janes series of military weaponry.

Andrzej was admitted to the University of Warsaw, but when school started last September, he was not there. Instead, he was in a hospital waiting for a life or death decision by someone he had never met. You see, he was suffering from an immune system disorder that had plagued him since childhood. In layman’s terms, he was susceptible to every disease and every virus that came his way. To add to his troubles, he had contracted hepatitis, and the doctors told him he wouldn’t live much longer without a new liver. That meant a transplant from someone who is deceased.

I suspect the system for managing organ donors in Poland is no better, nor any worse, than other developed countries. It is monitored by the government and usually lumbers along, getting things done slowly, but surely. But timing is everything in life, and just as Andrzej joined the donors list, something happened — something complicated and very political — and the system ground to a halt. No one knew when donors would appear again. Meanwhile, Andrzej waited, uncertain of his future.

August 15 is armed forces day in Poland. The Poles call it “The Celebration of the Miracle on the Vistula” — a day in the early 1920s when Marshal Pilsudski with a vastly outnumbered force drove the Soviet Army away from the river and subsequently back into Russia, thus securing Poland’s borders. Each year there is a parade in downtown Warsaw replete with troops, military equipment, and a flyby of aircraft and helicopters. Andrzej was home for a rare day away from the hospital and asked me to take him to see it. But when the time came to leave, he was too weak to go. Instead, we watched it on TV at home.

It was bittersweet afternoon. As we watched the parade, Andrzej provided a running commentary, while I sat clutching a piece of paper he had written providing the names of everything we were seeing — all in English, of course. Sometime after a flyover of MIG 29s and F-16s, I made him an honorary fighter pilot. It was all I could think of to do. When the parade was over, Andrzej began to weaken and his fever rose. His mother took him back to the hospital shortly thereafter. All this happened over a year ago. Since then, another Armed Forces Day parade has come and gone. But Andrzej was not there to see it; because after a long and agonizing wait for the liver he so desperately needed, he died from complications of the transplant surgery. The burning curiosity about life that refused to be quenched was dimmed forever. I do not know why God allows some people to live and condemns others to die. What I do know, is that Andrzej was my friend — and I miss him very much.  

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